David Borden, Executive Director, [email protected], 7/26/02
In a letter published in the Wall Street Journal several years ago (June 1998), Nobel laureate Milton Friedman laid out a detailed case for ending our nation's "war on drugs." The letter was one of many he'd written on the topic, but this one he had chosen to conclude with a little personal history of his own. The octogenarian economist had never tried any illegal drugs, he wrote, but would "make no guarantees for the future."
Silly? Maybe. But he was responding to some very silly people: the editorialists of the Journal itself. The occasion was the release of an open letter, signed by 500 prominent citizens from around the world and published in the New York Times, expressing that "we believe the global war on drugs is now causing more harm than drug abuse itself." The signatories called on UN Secretary General Kofi Annan to use the global drug summit taking place in New York that day as an opportunity for reevaluation rather than escalation. Along with Dr. Friedman, the signatory list included a number of retired heads of state and numerous other luminaries.
The Wall Street Journal editorialists weren't happy, at least not the one who wrote their editorial on the subject. Dismissing the signers of the letter as "500 drug geniuses," the Journal went so far as to suggest they had signed it because they themselves used drugs! Friedman used humor to illustrate what a stupid thing that was for the Journal to suggest.
The Journal's crazy editorializing on drug issues -- which it does regularly and displaying little more intellect than on that occasion -- contrasts starkly with the dispassionate reporting and cerebral economic analysis in the rest of the paper. I once submitted a letter of my own to the Journal -- never published -- in which I suggested that the editorial writers spend some time learning about economics from the reporters. Then they might understand why drug prohibition and the rest of the drug war can't possibly work, because they conflict with the fundamental economic law of supply and demand.
So it's not hard to understand why the recent British move to decriminalize cannabis (marijuana) could throw the Wall Street Journal editorialists into a tizzy. In just a few weeks, in fact, they ran not one but two editorials about it, plus an op-ed on the topic by drug czar John Walters. Though showing slight progress by acknowledging that "the arguments for decriminalizing marijuana are well-known and not without appeal," the Journal then went on to claim, using highly specious reasoning, that liberalization of drug laws in Europe had led to higher crime rates.
If the Journal's editorialists aren't interested in discussing the issue with the Journal's economic writers, maybe they'd be willing to touch base with fellow editorialists at The Economist, which has regularly called for the legalization of all drugs for years. I suppose it's not surprising that a British publication with an economic focus would interpret drug law economics more accurately than the editorial writers at an American economics-focused publication -- just as British policymakers are self-evidently more logical in their drug policies than their counterparts in Washington, DC.
It's not clear which group of people gets more silly from the influence of illegal drugs, users or lawmakers. But on this count, I'm afraid the editorialists at the Wall Street Journal have both of them beat.